Measuring Poverty in 60 Minutes to Help Somalia Address Data Deprivation

October 15, 2015


  • As a legacy of conflict and political insecurity, Somalia lacks reliable macro and socio-economic data, making evidence-based policy-making difficult.
  • An innovative high-frequency survey initiative supported by the World Bank is helping to establish statistical baselines and to monitor progress cost-effectively.
  • By identifying drivers of poverty at the household-level, the initiative aims to enable policy-makers to improve poverty reduction strategies and make informed investments.

The size and distribution of a country’s economy, wealth and population may seem like basic information that governments and development planners have at their fingertips. Not so in the Republic of Somalia, where the country’s history of conflict and political insecurity have destroyed much of its statistical infrastructure. The lack of reliable economic and development data presents a major hurdle to strategic planning.

A high-frequency survey initiative is helping Somalia leap ahead to bridge these gaps. Using a dynamic questionnaire loaded on a smartphone, data on expenditure, price and perception can be collected within 60 minutes of interviewing a household.

This innovative approach is part of the Somalia Knowledge for Operations and Political Economy Program (SKOPE) administered by the World Bank with financing and partnership support from the State and Peace-building Fund. The data gathering initiative is being conducted in close coordination with the Federal Government’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation and the Statistical Departments of the Puntland and Somaliland authorities.

Traditionally, data required to compute poverty measurements, Gross Domestic Product and Consumer Price Index are collected using lengthy paper and pencil surveys which are costly and time consuming.

“Collecting good quality household survey data in Somalia was challenging because the highly insecure environment limits the time available to administer questionnaires and supervise field operations,” said Utz Pape, Economist, World Bank Poverty Global Practice. The new approach was developed to deliver required data overcoming lack of security, limited data gathering capacity and budgetary constraints.

Between October and November 2014, 20 trained Somali enumerators collected data from 1,500 households comprising a statistically representative sample including both residential neighborhoods and camps housing internally displaced people in Mogadishu. Household data, such as expenditures on food and non-food items, demographics and living conditions, were keyed into purposely programmed smartphones running a bundle of open source applications. Through a cellular network which was enabled for real-time GPS-based monitoring, data quality was validated “on the fly” and transmitted to a cloud-based server.

This initiative comes as Somalia works to rebuild its economy, riding on positive political, economic and security developments since 2012. In a country with one of the lowest per capita GDP rates in the world and poverty rates anticipated to be among the highest, there is urgent demand for data to better understand the country’s economy and identify needs for poverty reduction.  

“We cannot base development decisions solely on observations from 36,000 kilometers in the sky. While satellite imagery is useful, we need market, community and household-level data gathered from people on the ground,” said Johan Mistiaen, Senior Economist, World Bank Poverty Global Practice. “This will help inform policies to improve the well-being of the people and help them share in the prosperity that a more stable and growing Somalia can generate.”

Early results show that the data collected was accurate and true, made possible by using special software developed for online monitoring which ensured that human error was minimized and errant consumption data were corrected.

This newly validated data is helping Somalia’s development partners target their interventions more effectively, shedding light on the economy and living conditions in Mogadishu. The initiative is now being repeated in Mogadishu as well as expanded to other parts of the country including camps for the internally displaced, urban and rural settlements, Somaliland and Puntland. Statistics and findings will be disseminated publicly.

This approach is also helping other countries in volatile environments. In South Sudan, the most recent household consumption survey was conducted in 2009, before the country gained independence in 2011. Since then, the country was in civil war for 20 months, weathering shocks including border closure and a drop in oil prices which affected livelihoods.

Without updated poverty numbers, however, policies and programs supporting recovery, resilience and economic growth cannot target the poor and vulnerable effectively. The Bank supported high-frequency Survey was used to measure household consumption, leading to unbiased poverty estimates representative of urban and rural levels for six states in 2015. Given the low cost of this approach, the next high-frequency survey in 2016 will measure the impact of peace on livelihoods by collecting consumption data after the peace agreement was signed in August 2015.  

Addressing data deprivation through this innovative approach will improve understanding of the actual drivers of poverty, which is particularly important in countries tackling fragility, to help make sound investments and plan for future development to benefit all the people.